Diversity Career Stories Management Philanthropy

Executive Director: “Put In The Work”

Rahsaan Harris went to school a biology major, but by the time he became Executive Director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, he’d been to the Peace Corps, taught in New York City public schools, led a community technology center, and worked at a foundation. He says he’s not lucky; just good at being able to come off the bench and make a difference. Now he’s teaching others in the social justice and philanthropy worlds to do the same.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?
I am the Executive Director of a nonprofit called Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy. It’s a lot of fancy words to say that we bring together people that work in philanthropy and provide leadership development for them so that they can have more impact through the work that they do. The organization was founded on the principle that people who work in grant-making foundations and other organized philanthropy need support, but there’s also space in our network for people who are committed to social change work and making an impact, even if they don’t currently work in a foundation.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?
On the program side, I’m constantly looking for opportunities to highlight what young and emerging leaders can do and how it can transform philanthropy. So what does that look like? It’s encouraging people to become thought leaders by getting them to write blog poss and lead webinars. It’s trying to get people to act locally by organizing convenings and leading meetings of their peers to discuss issues and share best practices. It’s trying to identify common themes that could be part of a curriculum to help our leaders stretch themselves beyond where they would typically go.

On the financial side, to keep this thing going, we have to raise money. So I’m out there every day thinking about how we add value to the field of philanthropy and social change movements. I’m making the case about our value to those who would be our institutional supporters and help fund the work that we do. The reality is that without the funding, none of the other stuff would be able to happen.

I also engage our board in making sure that what we do fits our mission and tell as many people as possible about why that mission is so important.

rahsaan4What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?
In school, I was a bio major, but after I graduated I decide to join the Peace Corps after graduation and do environmental education in Uruguay for my 2 years. When I got back, I became a teacher in the New York City Public Schools, inspired by my Mom’s work as an educator and the work I’d done abroad, and my mentors at the time told me that technology was going to be more and more important to being a good educator, so I looked for after-school programs that would let me use technology and started volunteering for HarlemLive.

HarlemLive at the time had a very inspirational director who was basically the soul of the organization, but he didn’t like a lot of the functional work that has to get done on the administrative side when you’re running an organization. I applied for and got a Fellowship from the Open Society Institute to become Associate Director and help him organize what he was doing – it was one of my first formal leadership positions. When my Fellowship ran out, the community technology center Playing2Win, which is where HarlemLive was located, needed an Executive Director and had seen the work I’d done with HarlemLive, so they hired me. That was the first time I got the Executive Director title.

It sounds easy, but along the way, I’d taken a lot of executive training programs and coaching programs on how to write a strategic plan and how to meet people and how to create a budget and all of that. I did all of that while I was at HarlemLive, because I was trying to educate myself on what it takes to be a leader, from how to excite people about what you’re doing to how to know when you’ve made an impact.

While I was Executive Director at the Playing2Win, I got connected to the foundation Atlantic Philanthropies through my landlord at the center, of all people. He helped me get the interview at Atlantic Philanthropies and I ended up staying there for seven and a half years. That’s when I learned about grantmaking. During that time, I did a lot of work trying to be an ambassador to the Harlem community and people of color to make grantmaking less mysterious and more accessible.

When the Executive Director position at EPIP became available, it took everything I’d done and brought it together – my Executive Director experience, my experience that building networks across the field is the way that you build power and make yourself more important than whatever your title says, and my network of  different foundations and organizations that I built over my career. Now I help to build those networks for other folks.

rahsaan2What is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?
I’m a black man who comes from a legacy of community work and activism and politics. My mom is an educator and my dad worked in politics for years on campaigns and as a public administrator. They both emphasized the importance of giving back to the community, especially the black community, because they believe we stand on other people’s shoulders who came before us and we have to honor their struggles. That always stayed with me and has helped to motivate me no matter what I’m doing.

I think that sense of community is now ingrained into who I am. A bunch of buddies and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last summer and we did it together and I loved having that shared group accomplishment. I remember at one point, one of my friends wasn’t feeling as well and I had the choice between going ahead with a group that was going faster or hanging behind and going with him, and I made a choice to stay with him, because it wasn’t about how fast I could go, it was about doing it together.

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?
Absolutely. I love the fact that it’s entrepreneurial. It’s not guaranteed that my paycheck is going to be there every day. It’s scary, but I do like the fact that I get to put together a vision and programming that will attract funding and that it’s up to me to make sure that my paycheck will be there by doing what I need to do.

What kind of challenges do you face?
The fact that funding landscape for this kind of work is always changing means that nothing is guaranteed, even my pay. That’s especially true because we’re an intermediary organization – we’re not directly saving the whales or creating the after school program. We’re supporting the people who fund those efforts and work in those fields. Sometimes people take that for granted and that can make raising funds so much harder. Always making sure that we’re sustainable and relevant keeps me up at night.

What do you need to succeed in this field?rahsaan5
As far as education goes, having an undergrad and some kind of Master’s degree is what I would recommend to be able to advance and not feel like anything’s getting in your way. But once you get past a Master’s, there’s no need to get education for education’s sake. Just getting an education without worrying about what it means or how you’re going to use it isn’t going to cut it.

A lot of the experience that I got, especially with HarlemLive, was through volunteerism. I wasn’t getting paid to do that after school program but it ended up educating me in a number of different skills. I learned how to manage a board of directors, how to write grants, how to apply for a 501c3, how to do research on potential grant-making organizations. I learned by seeking opportunities and finding organizations that gave workshops on topics I needed to know more about. The first step, though, was getting involved in a community. Once I put myself out there, I could see where the opportunities were.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
Put in the work. Volunteer and do it before you’re paid to do it. Try to lead and manage teams in your volunteer time, at your mosque or synagogue or church. If you’ve never mentored, be a Big Brother or Big Sister and try to teach a younger person something. Do things that bring you feedback – go do public speaking or have someone critique your writing. Try to raise money, whether it’s for your alma mater or your church or a Race for Kids or the New York City Marathon. Create space to do the things in your volunteer life that you might not be able to get from your work life. That way, when they come up in your work life, you’ll be ready.

No one is just going to bring you the perfect opportunity at the perfect time just because you deserve it. You have to be ready at any moment to be put into the game. It’s kind of like the backup basketball player who’s sitting on the bench – if the starting point guard twists his ankle and you get put in the game, you’ve got to be ready to go. And that moment can come at any time. So you’ve got to always be ready for it. Ambition alone does not give people opportunity.

rahsaan3I think that some of my colleagues at times feel like they’ve gone to a good school or gotten the right degree or found the right passion and they’re clear on what they want to do, but they’re not clear on how they’re going to continuously improve their skills and be ready for opportunities. You have to go beyond that and think about where you’re week, where you should be shoring up your skills. You’ve got to think beyond yourself. The more that you get out of our own needs and comfort zones and work on being open and available to others and to yourself, the more opportunities you’ll find.

What advice can you give those who may want to put themselves out there but are introverted or shy?
If you like your job and want to do it better, you’re going to want to get out there and see what other people are doing and learn best practices. Plus, there’s no guarantee that your organization is going to want to employ you forever, and the connections that you make may be able to help you find your next opportunity. I think it’s a mistake hiding your head in your one organization and thinking that doing a good job there is the be-all and end-all and is going to get you to the finish line. Because the moment a boss changes or funding changes, that could be all gone. If you don’t have a network to rely on, it’s a harder row to hoe.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I hope to have executed a successful transition out of EPIP. I love my job, but it’s not about being the King of the castle forever. In five years, I hope to have done a great job figuring out who the next leader of EPIP is. My next focus is going to be on helping at-risk communities get the resources they need to be successful. I’m not sure exactly how or what that looks like, but I want to be able to move resources around to make lives better for the most vulnerable folks.